Trigger warning/ caution: I wouldn’t do this exercise if you are feeling sensitive right now, or raw from something that someone has done. As always, seek help from a qualified professional if you need to.
If, like pretty much everyone else in the world, you know someone who is unkind or has a bad habit and you want to deepen your understanding of why, this may help you.
I thought of the exercise below just today and I like it as a way of cutting through all the logical arguments you, they and others have supplied, which don’t match up with the emotional charge, consequences, reactions or likely intentions of their actions.
It’s best to do it with an open mind because it is a gut-reaction search for information, not an intellectual figuring-out of a problem. Also try to minimise your judgements of the person and the situation because they make us less open to receiving information. Finally, it is most likely unhelpful to tell the person your experience, this is just for your own understanding.
Exercise: How Are they Broken?
- Close your eyes.
- Imagine doing one thing that they have done, something unkind, unhelpful or unhealthy.
- While picturing yourself doing it, follow the feeling all the way back to the inside of you and imagine/ wonder what you would have to feel like inside to want to act that way yourself.
- When you’re ready, remind yourself that you and they are separate beings and release any feelings that do not belong to you.
- Open your eyes.
This exercise, like all self-help exercises, can give us unexpected and useful information about a situation.
Of course, it doesn’t make us experts on others and sometimes our minds can step in and tell us what to see, rather than allowing our intuition to supply fresh (to our conscious minds anyway) information – especially if we’re holding a grudge! And sometimes we’re projecting our own stuff onto other people and situations. So it’s worth treating the results as a possible, not ultimate, truth.
It’s also good to bear in mind that it’s not always useful to have empathy for unkind people, especially if your empathy has a tendency to lower your boundaries. It depends on how easy it is for you to feel empathy and have a healthy relationship with that person and care for yourself at the same time.
But it can be an interesting exercise because we can all either down-play things, make excuses for people or judge them too harshly. Using an exercise like this to understand someone’s habitual unhelpful behaviour may give us a sense of the internal pattern that’s causing it. That can help us get more perspective and even to take appropriate action.
Even when we’ve been severely hurt, understanding the underlying, constant state of pain a person can be living with can really help us with our own recovery (as long as we don’t decide to try and fix or save them – that’s their job if they’re an adult).
It can even help us to take it less personally. After all, hurt people hurt people (or themselves). If it’s not you, it would likely be someone else. So, as strange as it may seem, drawing the person’s dynamic even closer to us with this visualisation may actually give us more distance from it, through the perspective we gain.
I hope this was useful for you.
And as always, take care!
Additional note: As I mentioned above if you need specific help, such as therapy, do seek it out. Also, if you’re worried about someone who is acting in a way that is harmful to themselves or others, there may be people you can reach out to for support for yourself, even if they are not yet ready for help themselves. Remember to always take care of yourself and your boundaries first, so that you can be happy and whole, a much better foundation for taking care of others. Finally, if you’re dealing with a hurtful person it may also be useful to revisit the post on dealing with narcissists in case that is relevant to your situation.